OTTAWA — MPs voted 258 to 13 in favour of a bill that would strip convicted federal politicians of a large part of their gold-plated pensions. The NDP and Liberals supported the bill.
Conservative MP John Williamson said the bill aims to close a loophole that allows MPs and senators convicted of a criminal offence to resign from office with full benefits before their colleagues have a chance to expel them from Parliament.
The opposition NDP, however, is critical of several amendments that the governing Conservatives made to Williamson’s bill during committee study. Specifically, changes that limited the bill to only Criminal Code offences — excusing Canada Elections Act violations such as those of former Tory MP Dean Del Mastro.
The bill was also changed to remove any retroactivity, so those convicted of a crime before the new rules are passed will not be affected.
Del Mastro, the former parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, resigned his seat in the Commons in November after a court convicted him of falsifying documents and breaking Elections Canada spending limits.
By quitting, Del Mastro was able to avoid NDP efforts to limit his pension. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation estimates that Del Mastro walked away from his nearly nine years in federal politics with a pension worth $44,000 a year, director Aaron Wudrick told The Huffington Post Canada.
In the House, NDP MP Peter Julian said he thinks the Prime Minister’s Office gutted the bill to protect Del Mastro.
“To our surprise, in the heat of the scandal around Mr. Del Mastro, Conservative members at the committee … actually put in place an amendment that would simply subtract these types of criminal violations from the overall thrust of the bill,” Julian said during the debate last week.
“It means that there is the Del Mastro loophole, which is a sizeable loophole in this legislation.”
Williamson told HuffPost that he supports his party’s amendments, which identified the types of Criminal Code offences covered by the bill. They include bribery, fraud, breach of trust, perjury, forgery and obstruction of justice. If convicted of one of those offences, the MP would only walk away with the contributions he or she made to the pension, plus the interest on that part.
“The point of this bill is to get individuals who fleece taxpayers,” Williamson told HuffPost. “It’s not meant to trap people who make a momentary lapse of judgment or do something unrelated to our duties.”
It is meant to focus on the types of activities that relate to the work of parliamentarians, he added.
Williamson pointed to the case of former Liberal senator Raymond Lavigne who quit in 2011 after he was found guilty of fraud and breach of trust in relation to the use of his parliamentary resources. Lavigne was sentenced to six months in jail, six months of house arrest and told to give $10,000 to charity. By resigning early, he blunted the Senate’s effort to strip him of a large part of his estimated $80,000 a year pension.
Another more recent example is Mac Harb. The former Liberal senator is set to stand trial in April for fraud and breach of trust related to his Senate expenses. Harb resigned and kept a pension estimated by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to be worth $123,000 a year.
The NDP hopes to amend the bill Wednesday by closing what it views as the “Del Mastro loopholes.”
Liberal democratic reform critic Scott Simms told the Commons Tuesday during a debate that he didn’t want to talk about the particular Del Mastro situation and signalled that he would be supporting the bill as it is.
Williamson said he thinks that the NDP is trying to score political points with the Del Mastro issue and that even if the amendments fail, the opposition party will support his bill.
The first step in drafting the bill was understanding the Criminal Code violations were just a first step, Williamson told HuffPost.
“I don’t think there is a reasons why [Canada Elections Act offences] couldn’t be included and maybe it will be down the road.”
He said he also hoped there would be another bill down the road that would look at limiting the pensions of public sector workers found guilty of abusing their positions.
Williamson told HuffPost he had trouble convincing his colleagues to support his bill as it is.
“My primary focus was getting enough members in the House on board to get it through, and that required [me] to limit the scope, and the Election Act did not come up by any member at any time,” he said.
“Members of Parliament did not like talking about pension provisions, and I will not win Mr. Congeniality in Parliament for this bill,” he said.
Some members did raise concerns that family members of convicted politicians would be unfairly affected if the MP or senator’s pension were reduced.
Williamson expressed regret that his bill — because it is not retroactive — will not cover cases such as Joe Fontana, who was convicted last year of filing phony expenses while serving as a Liberal MP. His pension is estimated to be worth $122,000 a year.
Still, he said he is confident the bill could apply to future cases involving senators, such Harb or Mike Duffy or Pamela Wallin, if they are convicted of a serious crime related to the exercise of their functions.
“It’s still a good bill,” he said with a smile.
Williamson’s bill would affect anyone convicted after it receives royal assent.
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